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Sayeed Ahmed

A Versatile

Ershad Kamol

He was born in a rich cultural family. His father Mirza F Mohammad was the owner of the once very popular commercial theatre, Lion Theatre, where along with the regular performance of the commercial troupes, leading troupes from different corners of the Indian subcontinent used to perform at the theatre hall at Islampur, Old Dhaka. All of his three elder brothers Nasir Ahmed, radio personality Nazir Ahmed and painter Hamidur Rahman have made significant contributions to our culture.

In his kaleidoscopic journey as an international acclaimed theatre and art critic and a playwright, Sayeed Ahmed had travelled a lot, had the opportunity to watch a lot and to mix with the masters of the world in his time.

Sayeed Ahmed was born in 1931 in a transitional period when commercial theatre was replaced by talkies and later became a popular cinema theatre. However, he watched performances of Urdu theatre troupes from Lukhnow, Kolkata and Allahabad at his father's commercial theatre in his boyhood. He also used to watch theatre performances in the commercial theatres in Kolkata performed by legendary actors such as Shishir Bhaduri.

His boyhood friends at Dhaka Collegiate School such as poet Shamsur Rahman, sitarist Bahadur Ali Khan, Khan Ataur Rahman and Fazle Lohani are also leading figures in their respective fields in the country. In the international arena he had ties with maestroes of Theatre of Absurd such as Samuel Beckett and Eugine Ionesco, French painter Ruiz Pipo and American leading theatre director of 1970s Richard Popp. These master artists were admirers of Ahmed as a critic. Sayeed Ahmed used to play sitar in BBC and had the experience of acting on stage in London and New York. He also was the sitarist when dance maestro Uday Sankar visited Europe.

As recognition of his prolific career as a playwright Sayeed Ahmed has bagged many prestigious awards in the country such as Bangla Academy Award and Bangladesh Shilapkala Academy Award. Among his most provocative plays are Kalbela (1962), Milepost (1963), Trishnay (1968), Ek Din Protidin (1974) and "Shesh Nawab" (1988). His plays have been translated into French, German, Italian, Urdu and Punjabi and were staged by different troupes in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and USA.

As a guest lecturer Sayeed Ahmed delivered lectures in several presitigious universities in US such as George Town University, American University and Catholic University. He also delivered lectures at prestigious universities and theatre academies in other countries such as Brazil, China, France, Germany, The Netherlands, India, Japan, Malaysia and Russia. For his vast knowledge in art, he was awarded Legion d' Honneur by the French Government in 1993.

He was a public service holder and had held helm positions such as Secretary of Ministry of Youth and Sports and Director General of Bangladesh Television. Moreover, he did consultancy for several international donor agencies including the IMF.

With playwright Ranjit Bolt.

At the age of 79, this rare talent passed away on January 21 at a hospital in the city. He had been suffering from old age complications for last few years. Leading political and cultural organisations paid respect to the deceased at Central Shaheed Minar. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also sent her condolence letter to Ahmed's wife and family.

Recalling his childhood memories, Sayeed Ahmed in an interview with a monthly Bangla theatre magazine named Theatrewala, said that he used to recite poems mostly by Tagore at his early age. "Since my elder brothers were artists, I was introduced to various art forms at my boyhood. My father was the owner of a commercial theatre troupe and legendary actors of these used to visit my house. However, I used to practice music during my boyhood. I learnt sitar from Khadem Hossain Khan."

"When for the first time I met Sayeed Ahmed, he was playing sitar at his home in Islampur. His elder brother Nazir Ahmed was my guru at radio. Later, I met him several times and found that as teenagers Sayeed Ahmed and his friends such as Shamsur Rahman who were neighbours, used practice cultural activities at his house," eminent poet cum playwright Syed Shamsul Haque tells The Star.

In 1952, Sayeed Ahmed along with his friends formed an orchestra and he used to play sitar. His theatre activity was nurtured while studying at Dhaka University. He and his friends Shamsur Rahman and Hasan Hafizur Rahman used to compose and write radio plays in the early 1950s. He also acted in plays such as Eureka, Jalpan and Sheshrakkha with his university friends at Curzon Hall, Dhaka University.

Sayeed Ahmed was introduced to contemporary western art, theatre and music when Ahmed went to study for his masters degree at the London School of Economics in 1954, a transitional period in England : The Labour Party was just formed and class struggle was a major social problem.

"A significant number of playwrights began to write plays having new forms and themes. I was amazed by the theatre productions. I was so fascinated to watch theatre productions that I worked as a loader and assistant of a driver to collect money to watch theatre performances. At the same time I frequently visited sart galleries and used to write art criticisms. I also performed in a theatre performance titled A King is Born in the role of a brown-skinned magi in English language. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to be introduced to the cultural circuit in England. I really enjoyed Theatre of Absurd productions and musical concerts," told Sayed Ahmed.

In 1956, Sayeed Ahmed came back to Lahore and joined public service. However, his fascination for art forced him to pass most of his times with leading artists of Pakistan and Europe. He used to write as an art critic and theatre and book reviews in several English journals in Pakistan and European countries that gave him the opportunity to become friends with the master writers, playwrights and artists. Moreover, he began writing Theatre of Absurd in English.

"I wrote his first play titled No I in English in 1957, however, the artist circuit in Pakistan did not like that. Subsequently I tore the script. Subsequently he wrote one of his most popular plays The Thing in English. It became very popular in Pakistan and many troupes in Pakistan and India staged the play in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi language. Subsequently, Bazlul Karim approached me and offered to translate it in Bangla to be staged in Dhaka," he said.

Legendary theatre personality Bazlul Karim translated the play as Kalbela in 1962 in Dhaka as a Drama Circle production. The play was staged several shows at USIS Centre in Dhaka and obtained huge popularity. In fact, the play created opportunity for Sayeed Ahmed to be introduced with legendary theatre personalities in the US and France.

Director by Hazelman, The Thing was staged in US. Through this he was introduced with American theatre personalities. He also acted in a play in US staged by Esta Theatre. The Thing was published from France and Ahmed became quite popular with French art circuit.

He wrote his second Theatre of Absurd Milepost also in
English. It was translated in Urdu with the title Nisan that became very popular in Pakistan. Theatre personality Ataur Rahmnan translated Milepost in Bangla having same title.

"In fact, I along with most of the leading theatre personalities of these days used to practice theatre under the guidance of eminent playwright Ashkar Ibne Sheikh in 1960s in a Dhaka University based troupe Shatrang. One day Ashkar Ibne Sheikh introduced me to Sayeed Ahmed. Then I translated the play in Bangla. The play became very popular. Subsequently, I directed the same play after the Liberation War for Nagarik Natya Sampradaya," Ataur Rahman tells The Star.

"I used to attend addas arranged by Sayeed Ahmed. He was very smart and amiable and amicable. In addas, he used to speak either in English or in traditional kutti, a dialect of Old Dhaka," he adds.

Sayeed Ahmed wrote his third play Trishnay in Bangla. In 1974 he wrote his fourth Theatre of Absurd Ek Din Protidin in Bangla. However, his last play Shesh Nawab does not belong to the genre.

"Many people claims that eminent playwright cum novelist Syed Waliullah introduced Theatre of Absurd in Bangla. It is not true. He was a great playwright, but his plays are based on Existentialism. In fact, Theatre of Absurd was introduced by me," claimed Sayeed Ahmed in the interview with Theatrewala.

Evaluating his plays Syed Shamsul Haque tells the Star, "Though he wrote Theatre of Absurd, he used elements from our traditional culture. In this sense, he deserves special credit."

Moreover, Sayeed Ahmed also translated sequences of many foreign plays for the TV programme Biswa Natok. In the TV show, Ahmed introduced leading playwrights from across the world with the local viewers. This programme made him a very popular figure amongst the public.

With the death of this cultural icon, the country has lost a brilliant mind. The Star team mourns his death.

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